The Buyer’s Journey:
Lessons from Trail Building
You might be familiar with the idea of creating a buyer’s journey as part of content marketing. This is when you lay out your content in a way that naturally leads your prospect from where they are to becoming a client.
And it turns out, this is a lot like physical trail building.
In some ways, this is obvious. After all, hiking is one kind of journey. But if you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about trails, not all of these similarities are as evident.
At least, they weren’t for me until I read On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. As I went through it, I couldn’t help noticing how some of the best practices he identified apply to both trail building and content marketing.
1. Know who’s using the trail
Before you start working on your trail, you need to know who’s going to use it. Only then can you give that person the kind of value and experience they want.
For physical trails, you’d need to consider what hikers want to see. This might include scenic viewpoints, a waterfall, or some other natural formation.
From a content marketing perspective, this means giving your readers valuable content. But without knowing your audience, you won’t be able to provide the right kind of information. For example, people in different departments will value different things about a solution: ease of use, Return on Investment, time to implement, and so on. In order to know which area to focus on, it’s important to first understand who you’re writing to.
2. Know the true goal of the journey
Hand-in-hand with knowing the audience is understanding their true goal. This is because, as Moor points out, the end is not always the goal.
Consider the difference between runners and hikers. Runners are more focused on speed, so they want a trail with the most direct route to the end. But for hikers, the journey is part of the goal, especially since some of them may not reach the official end point. This means that they’re looking for value along the way, no matter how quickly or slowly they go.
This also applies for content. If you’re writing to the decision-maker, the goal is for them to decide on a solution, preferably the one you’re writing about. But if your prospect is at a lower level, their goal is more likely to learn something. Then, if they get enough value, they may pass the information along to someone higher-up.
3. Know the surrounding landscape
In addition to knowing where you’re going, you need the best starting point.
For physical trails, this means identifying an accessible entry point, one the hikers will be able to easily find. This should also be attractive enough to encourage hikers to take those crucial first steps.
It’s similar with content. Part of understanding your audience is knowing where they’ll be looking for information, as well as what will stand out for them. And you need to know how to entice them into following your trail instead of someone else’s.
4. Find the most sustainable route
Once you know your two end points, you want to build your trail to be sustainable, so you can limit the amount of maintenance it requires.
In hiking, this means building a trail that resists erosion from heavy use and the elements.
With content, the eroding factor is time. In this case, sustainability means providing evergreen content. That way, even without much upkeep, what you’ve written will still offer value to new prospects for months or years.
5. Provide plenty of trail markers
You also want to give your hikers — or prospects — plenty of trail markers so they don’t get lost.
Hiking trails usually do this by putting blazes on trees and rocks, with enough frequency that the next blaze is visible when you’re at the previous one. No one should have to guess where to go.
Content marketing works the same way. You want each piece you write to connect logically to the next, so your reader is never left to wonder how they got there — or worse, question what they’re expected to do next. If you leave them stranded at a dead end, odds are they’ll move on to something else and won’t return to become a client.
6. Scout out the trail
After you’ve laid out your trail, you want to scout it out. Whether it’s with hiking or content, this starts with putting yourself in the shoes of the person taking the journey.
Then imagine each step through their eyes and consider if you’ve met all the criteria:
- Is your starting point clear and enticing?
- Have you provided the most efficient way to reach the desired goal — remembering that the end may not be the goal?
- Does the trail have enough value?
- Is it sustainable?
- Do you have enough trail markers, and are they clear and visible?
Then make sure you shore up any weak spots, or smooth out areas that are too difficult, before deciding you’re done.
7. Provide a sense of connection
And as you go, you also want to make sure that your trail provides one other key component: connection. Because as Moor points out, the primary purpose of a trail is to connect.
This goes beyond connecting the hiker (or prospect) with their desired goal, although that’s an important part.
But hikers also need to feel connected to the people who built the trail. Even more, they need to trust that the trail-builders understood them well enough to get them to their goal safely and in the best way possible.
For content, you want to have that same level of connection and trust with your readers. They should feel like you know and understand them, and that they can rely on you to get them where they want to go. And hopefully they’ll like you enough to consider another adventure with you.
A path through the wilderness
Some people will always want to blaze their own trails, whether they’re out in the forests and mountains or on the internet. But most people appreciate having clear paths for them to get to their goals. And if you keep these trail-building tips in mind, you can help them do just that.
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